In Iain M. Banks's "Culture" novels, the Culture's most powerful and sophisticated weapons are effectors, electromagnetic manipulation devices capable of remotely reading and controlling computers and biological minds.

In Alastair Reynolds's most recent novel, Revenger, there is a brief reference to a device called an effector. A robot is able to defeat and reprogram an electronic door mechanism:

The door had a wheel on it, just like the one in the Monetta. I tried it once, and it was as stiff as if it had been welded in place. But I knew that robots could speak to locks and doors, and I wasn't surprised when Peregrine made the door click, the wheel whirred in my hand and I was in.

'The door will lock itself when you leave,' Peregrine said. 'But if I were you I wouldn't spend too long in there.'

'I'm not intending to. But if I needed to come back tomorrow, or the day after...'

'You won't need me. I made a small adjustment to the door's settings - nothing that will get either of us in trouble. It will think your bracelet is a passkey.'

Later there is a discussion with another robot about how he did it:

"I met a robot who could get through locks. Why can't you?"

"There is a lot that I cannot do, Fura. The robot you met may have had an effector module. Mine was deinstalled when they put in my blockades. Besides, there are other considerations."

Prior to this, I've never heard of effectors outside of Banks's Culture novels, and Google seems to agree. Is there some precursor that both Banks and Reynolds are drawing on? Or is the use of an effector in Revenger a reference to the The Culture?

  • 9
    Effector is apparently a generic term in robotics for any part they use to interact with their environment, like robotic hands/pincers. Obviously Banks wasn't using the term that way, it's unclear if Reynolds was, since even if the robot speaking in that quote didn't have the specific type of effector needed to pick locks, it presumably had some way of interacting with its environment or it would just be a computer, not a robot. Maybe in the world of the novel "effector" had evolved a more specialized meaning.
    – Hypnosifl
    Jan 12, 2017 at 14:25
  • @Hypnosifl I added another passage describing the use of the effector. I don't think Reynolds was using the term in the generic sense.
    – Robert
    Jan 13, 2017 at 4:36
  • 4
    Sensor/Effector loops are commonly used terminology in controls engineering. An "effector" is basically anything that changes the parameters monitored by the sensor's control loop. Mar 1, 2017 at 1:44

2 Answers 2


The term is used in Pohl and Williamson's novel Rogue Star, book three of their Starchild trilogy, first published 1969. Fusorian-infused transcience intellects (from sentient stars to condescending robots) use 'plasma effectors'

Cliff Hawk was lecturing now, his eyes fastened on limitless space. "Thinking machines are all alike. Whether they are human brains or fusorian committees or sentient stars or computing robots, they all possess certain features in common. All thinking things have inputs—from sensory organs or tape readers or sensitive plasmas. They all have data storage units—magnetic cores or neurone cells or spinning electrons. They all have logic and decision units—synaptic or electronic or transcience patterns. They all have outputs—through motor organs or servo machines or plasma effectors."

and later, the protagonist, Andy Quam, seeks aid...

Andy Quam stood his ground, disdaining the effector that tried to wave him away. "Robot, an emergency exists." He heard the ripple of excitement from the children and lowered his voice. "A very grave emergency, I'm afraid. Three plasma bolts from the sun have just struck near here. Human beings may have been injured, even killed."
Gently but firmly, the dark tip of the effector coiled around his arm, propelled him irresistibly toward the benches. "You must wait, sir," sang the robot as the staring children tittered. "Be seated. Be still. Be attentive, all of you, as I resume the wonderful story of the Visitants and their fusorian gifts to man."

  • 1
    Those are just the same name, though, not the same type of device
    – endolith
    Oct 12, 2020 at 21:41

I haven't read The Culture series yet, but your description of effectors sounds similar to technology called localizers in Vernor Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky. Specifically, localizers could "interface with biological minds and computers" and are "electromagnetic manipulation devices".

A difference is that, as I gather, effectors are a single device, localizers are a distributed device. However the localizers do use microwave energy and electromagnetism to transmit power and perform work. Although the Wikipedia page I linked says see also: smartdust, the basic localizers owned by the antogonists in the story are more on the level of swarm robotics. The higher-tech localizers owned by the protagonist occupy an intermediate position between swarm robotics and smartdust.

(True smartdust has a role in the story as well but to say any more than that would be a major spoiler.)

  • 4
    Effectors in Bank's terminology are action at a distance force fields. The localizers in Vinge's work are nano-sized auto-networking computers. Very, very different things. Feb 28, 2017 at 21:40

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.